IN THEIR SPARE TIME, THEY’RE WRITING NOVELS, WORKING ON PAINTINGS, AND PERFORMING BALLET: THE SURPRISING SIDELINES OF GRADUATE CENTER PROFESSORS AND ADMINISTRATORS
In March, John D. Greenwood, a professor in the Philosophy and Psychology programs at the Graduate Center, published his novel Hungry Ghosts, the final volume of his Singapore Saga trilogy, a fictional portrait of the European and Asian pioneers whose conflicting interests fueled the expansion of Singapore in the early 19th century.
Together with Forbidden Hill and Chasing the Dragon, his three books, all published in the last three years, come to almost 1,300 pages, a literary output that would be impressive for any writer. But Greenwood also publishes widely in his field and serves as the Philosophy program’s deputy executive officer. When colleagues find out about his novels, they wonder how he found the time to write them. “I’m pretty much a workaholic,” he says. But for Greenwood, who lived in Singapore for five years, the work on his novels is a labor of love. “I started the story that became the first book, and I never looked back.”
Painting Gives Her a Different Perspective
Linda Vigdor pictured with her work Consciousness of the Planet (Photo credit: Beth Harpaz)
Greenwood isn’t alone among Graduate Center professors and administrators who devote considerable time to artistic pursuits that fall, or seem to fall, far outside the realm of their academic work. Visitors to the Advanced Science Research Center in 2019 were able to view Objects & objectivities: Convergences in epistemic divergence, an exhibition that was organized and featured paintings by Linda Vigdor, associate director of proposal development at the CUNY ASRC. Unlike Greenwood, who had no previous experience in fiction writing before starting his novel, Vigdor has a background in the arts. Before earning her Ph.D. in educational psychology, she received two M.F.A. degrees and worked as a costume and scenic artist while also working on her own painting and sculpture.
Much of Vigdor’s current work, which includes representations of brain cell networks and images inspired by the intelligence of nonhuman species, appears to be influenced by the science that surrounds her in her job. But the relationship isn’t so simple. “I use science, but my work is in a sense more philosophical,” Vigdor says. “Only recently has there been scientific research that shows the impressive intelligence and consciousness and skills that various other animals and even plants and fungi have. Humans are really only one piece of this big system, but we don’t operate as if we’re part of it. That’s largely what I think about when I do my paintings.”
Connecting Art and Science, and Penning a Biography
Helen Koh in front of Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Koh)
Like Vigdor, Helen Koh, director of Institutional Giving and Strategic Initiatives and the founding director of Art Science Connect, came to the Graduate Center with a varied background and interests. After earning a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, she was on the faculty of Columbia University and later worked for Deloitte, before deciding that corporate American was not for her. Koh became interested in development while working for the Asia Society as a director of cultural programs. At the Graduate Center, she learned about the PSC-CUNY Research Award Program, and considered what she’d always wanted to do but never had the time or money to do.
The answer, she decided, was a biography of pioneering video artist and Fluxus founder Nam June Paik. Paik, an Asian American artist, lived in several countries — Japan, Korea, Germany — and Koh conducts much of her research during summer trips. “I use the time to visit the archives, interview people, explore the area,” she says. During the academic year, she works on the writing. “The writing is something you kind of have to do every day. I try to write almost every day, even if it’s just for an hour.”
Koh, who has also won a Leon Levy Center for Biography fellowship, has been working on the biography for about five years. Her work on this project brings together her research, organizational, and even fundraising skills, yet devoting a significant amount of her time and energy to a subject that is outside her official role brings its own satisfaction. “Most people are good at more than one thing,” she says. “And they shouldn’t be relegated to only one thing.”
A Life of Dance, and of the Mind
Perhaps the most surprising combinations of interests at the Graduate Center belongs to Barbara Gail Montero, who is a professor of philosophy and also a choreographer and ballet dancer. After graduating from high school at 15 and before college, Montero was a professional ballet dancer, starting as an apprentice with Atlanta Ballet and then as a full company member of the Florida Ballet and the Oregon Ballet. After seven years, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in philosophy because it “expands your knowledge in many different ways, not just through the humanities but a with touch of science and logic.” But after discovering the Berkeley Ballet Theater, she was drawn back into the dance world — performing in the theater’s productions and also choreographing for a small company she started, Ballet After Work.
Graduate school, and also parenthood, again diverted her attention away from dance, but not for long. More recently, she discovered a way to merge philosophy and dance. The Logos Dance Collective, which she co-founded five years ago, has an explicitly philosophical bent, touching on topics such as the unreality of time. “Sometimes my philosophical views might lead me to choreograph a particular piece,” she says. “And other times working on a dance may inspire a philosophical view.”
As for managing the time and effort involved in her academic work — she is in the process of finishing two books — while also steadily working on an artistic pursuit, Montero, like so many others at the Graduate Center, says it’s a necessity. “Movement and music really call to me,” she says. “If I go a long time without that, it certainly does feel like something is missing.”
Another scientist with an artistic sideline at the Graduate Center: Robin Garrell, chemist and GC president, whose pastel drawing “COVID Sisyphys” was selected for the first cover of the journal Polity.
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